Isolated and excluded yet resilient: seeking asylum during a global pandemic

30 March 2021

By Professor Peter Hopkins (School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University) and Dr Robin Finlay (School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University)

Photo by pixpoetry on Unsplash

A research team at Newcastle University – led by Peter Hopkins with Robin Finlay and Matthew Benwell – are currently exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on asylum-seeking and refugee communities in the UK through a project funded by the ESRC COVID-19 call . We are undertaking a survey of organisations who provide services for refugees, as well as conducting interviews with refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow and Newcastle upon Tyne to collect first-hand accounts of their experiences and negotiations of the pandemic.

Asylum seekers and refugees are a diverse group from different countries, with various social identities, and wide-ranging levels of educations; they are united by their claim for asylum in the UK. We have found the pandemic to have varied impacts, often depending on asylum/refugee status, social networks and personal circumstances. Nonetheless, for the majority, lockdown is worsening their already difficult circumstances and putting great strain on physical and mental wellbeing.  This comment discusses some of  the emerging findings of our research so far.

Many of the asylum seekers and refugees who had arrived in the UK before the pandemic found that – following the announcement of the first lockdown – the organisations they visited for support were no longer allowed to open their doors. English language classes, arts groups, counselling services and support groups for food, clothing and hardship funds had to close. Furthermore, the city spaces in which some refugees would formerly spend their time were empty as everyone was encouraged to stay at home, yet many refugees and asylum seekers are housed in substandard accommodation in deprived and hostile communities. The same too can be said about the urban public spaces and venues that provide important contexts for socialising, spending time in, and learning about the new city and country in which they find themselves. Here then, spaces of connection within support organisations, social spaces in cities, as well as unsociable housing environments results in asylum seekers and refugees being spatially excluded from public spaces and from building relationships in their new communities.

Lockdown and the legal requirement to stay at home has been particularly difficult for many in asylum dispersal accommodation. For women asylum seekers with children, having to spend extended periods of time in accommodation that lacks enough space for all the family and is of poor quality has been extremely difficult. With limited financial and material resources, extra caring responsibilities at home – such as home schooling and additional cooking – has put significant pressure on asylum seeker and refugee parents. Single asylum-seeking men are often housed in bedsit and multiple occupancy accommodation, which is frequently of poor-quality and located in marginal urban areas.

Added to this are financial pressures. Under section 95 of the UK Government’s asylum policy, asylum seekers are entitled to £37.75 per week. Asylum seekers who have had their asylum applications declined find themselves destitute, without any official financial support. For some, staying in their accommodation during lockdown has led to severe isolation, loneliness and anxiety around possible transmission of the virus, significantly impacting on mental wellbeing.

Asylum seekers who arrived in the UK during the pandemic found themselves in a very isolated and anxiety-provoking context with many of the usual sources of advice and support not as accessible as they were before the pandemic. Although many agencies worked around the clock to move some services online, digital exclusion meant that many asylum seekers were isolated from nearly all sources of support. With no access to libraries or other venues that provide free internet access and no WIFI on their mobiles, many were cut off completely from the routines they had started to establish.

With the shutdown of much of the economy and temporary closure of many civil and government departments, waiting and uncertainty – which are a common everyday reality for asylum seekers and refugees – has increased during the pandemic.  In particular, the long-drawn-out legal process to claim asylum, contest asylum decisions and to find and receive advice about immigration matters is further protracted, increasing feelings of anxiety and desperation. For others, the situation of lockdown amplifies the ordinary lived experience of asylum seekers, with one participant stating it is like ‘double lockdown’ for those seeking asylum.

In response to this growing crisis, third sector organisations, such as voluntary, charity and community groups, have played a crucial role in working to mitigate the damaging impacts of the pandemic, and the asylum system more generally, on displaced people. Many organisations and groups have adapted their services in innovative ways to keep providing crucial support, such as food banks and food deliveries, online English classes, hardship funds, internet provision and counselling. Asylum seekers and refugees themselves play important roles in such groups through volunteering, activism and community engagement work. Moreover, asylum seekers and refugees have responded independently to the crisis, carrying out ad-hoc charity and community work, such as food delivery services, making PPE visors and providing peer-to-peer support.

With the full impacts of the pandemic still emerging, our research is illustrating the multiple ways the pandemic is exacerbating the everyday vulnerabilities of many asylum seekers and refugees. Through listening to the voices of those seeking asylum, the research is revealing the everyday human cost of the pandemic, alongside the exclusionary effects of the UK asylum system. Despite the reliance and support mobilised by the third sector and members of asylum seeker and refugee populations, until the UK government implements a genuine humanitarian approach to asylum, displaced people will always be one of the most vulnerable populations in moments of crisis.

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Peter Hopkins FAcSS is Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University where he leads two projects, one about refugee youth and public space (funded by HERA Public Spaces) and a second about refugees and COVID-19 (funded by ESRC – ES/V015141/1)

Dr Robin Finlay is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Newcastle University where he is the working on both the HERA and ESRC projects identified above.